With roots dating back to the Roman Empire, the image of the Madonna and Child has defined centuries of artistic creation. The earliest known example is in the Catacomb of Priscilla, an ancient burial site in Rome. Representations of the Madonna and Child have evolved greatly, transforming across Byzantium and Medieval Europe, until a more naturalistic approach emerged in the early Italian Renaissance.
Alessandro Filipepi, known as Sandro Botticelli, along with his contemporaries Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, revolutionised this classical image during the Florentine Renaissance, forever shaping our views of biblical imagery.
In later eras, depictions of the Madonna and Child were adapted to modern settings. In the 19th century, Paul Gauguin revisited the subject through a series of paintings that portray Tahitian women posed to reflect the iconic motif.
Separated by nearly 400 years, Botticelli and Gauguin each reinvigorated the archetypal Madonna and Child in their paintings. Looking at examples from the collection of Paul G. Allen — which will be offered in an unprecedented auction at Christie’s New York on 9 November 2022 — we come to better understand these visionary artists, whose approaches to this timeless subject are nothing short of transcendent.
The Madonna revisited
Botticelli’s celebrated Madonna of the Magnificat, in the Uffizi in Florence, showcases the artist’s inventive spirit. Painted circa 1483 the tondo — or, round painting — was a particular specialty of the artist, who was adept at creating visual harmony within its compositional constraints.
This autograph version of the Uffizi painting, which was probably painted toward the end of the 1480s, shows Mary with the infant Jesus in her lap. To the left are three angels dressed in contemporary Florentine clothing. Mary holds a quill with an open book before her, the text clearly legible as the Song of Zacharias from the Gospel of Luke — including the Magnificat, Mary’s proclamation of praise to God.
Now a famed devotional work of art, the Madonna of the Magnificat was a departure from tradition in many ways. Here, Botticelli bridges the visual realism favoured by his mentor Fra Filippo Lippi with the spiritual beauty of the divine. He presents us not with a biblical episode but an imagined scene inspired by scripture.
Infused with emotional depth, the intimacy of the subjects goes beyond iconographic depiction. Mother and Child gaze at one another, while the angels lean together with affection, evoking a warmth particular to Botticelli. This marriage of originality and depth characterises the most magnificent of his works.
Four centuries later, Gauguin reinterpreted the motif during his second stay in Tahiti, where the artist would remain until his death in 1903. Maternité (II) (1899) is characteristic of his later works, in which he moved away from the documentation of daily Tahitian life towards more fantastical, timeless portrayals.
In an earlier example, Ia Orana Maria (1891), now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gauguin makes direct reference to Christian themes. Describing the painting in a letter from March 1892, Gauguin writes, ‘An angel with yellow wings reveals Mary and Jesus, both Tahitians, to two Tahitian women...I'm rather happy with it.’
Gauguin continues this exploration in Maternité (II). Posed within Edenic surroundings, two women flank a kneeling mother as she nurses her baby. The standing women hold fruit and flowers, nods to female fertility and perhaps emblematic of offerings to the Madonna-like figure. They look outwards towards the viewer, emphasizing our intrusion upon an intimate moment of motherhood. With its symbolism and lush beauty, Gauguin delivers a tribute to femininity and maternity.
Gauguin completed this painting during a time when few artists were concerned with religious representations, focusing instead on reflections of the world around them. In Maternité (II), Gauguin melded these two ideas, inserting the divine into his illustrations of Tahitian life. In doing so, he revived an interest in intimate depictions of mother and child, a motif that is still pervasive today.
Breaking with tradition
Since antiquity, artistic interpretations of the New Testament have traditionally been created for the purpose of religious devotion, depicting biblical scenes in which each figure is identifiable within the narrative. Both Botticelli and Gauguin’s renderings push beyond this realm.
In Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat, Mary appears to be writing ‘Magnificat anima mea Dominum’ (My soul doth magnify the Lord). While the Magnificat was seldom represented in art, it was even rarer to show the Virgin inscribing the canticle herself. Female literacy was uncommon during Botticelli’s time, and it was especially extraordinary for women to write, even if they could read. In this unusual depiction, Botticelli elevates Mary through the blessing of God.
This is also reflected in the elegance of her clothing and gold-streaked hair. Botticelli rejects the naturalism of Lippi, which he believed made the Virgin too common, and instead glorifies her through beauty. He illustrates Mary’s spiritual transformation from a humble woman to an instrument of God.
In Maternité (II) Gauguin makes a similar departure, reimagining a traditional motif through abstraction. Surrounded by the vibrancy of the tropics, Gauguin experimented with colour in Tahiti. He used bright hues and arabesque lines to infuse his works with mystery and magic.
With its yellow sky streaked with pink clouds and a foreground of blue, bright red and emerald green, Maternité (II) employs the expressive potential of colour to further the mythical vision of mother and child. Just as Botticelli elevated his figures through beauty, Gauguin does so through the majestic handling of colour. Using these vibrant hues, the artist underscores the monumentality of the scene before us.
Working centuries apart, these two visionary artists brought their own sensibilities to a traditional subject, and the impact of their unique interpretations reverberate to this day.
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